Friday, October 08, 2010

Memories from the Dakota

My first direct contact with John Lennon’s domestic world happened five years after his death.

It was October 9, 1985, and his Central Park memorial, Strawberry Fields, was being dedicated on what would have been his 45th birthday. I was a producer for MTV News, and like every other news crew, VJ Martha Quinn and I were standing just inside the park, at 72nd Street and Central Park West, video cameras at the ready, with very little to shoot. Yoko Ono had made it abundantly clear that this was to be a private, family day for her and Sean. We could all film the mosaic in the park if we wanted to, but she wasn’t giving interviews.

As we stood there, a plan started to formulate itself in my head. For some reason that I’ve never quite been able to figure out, Yoko Ono had a particular fondness for Martha Quinn. And I knew that Martha had her phone number. I said casually, “Martha….there’s a phone booth right over on the corner” (this was pre-cell phone days). “Why don’t you give her a call, see if she’ll let us come up?”

Next thing I knew, we were in the elevator, on our way upstairs.

My first reaction was that the apartment was amazing – the entire top floor, front of the building, overlooking Central Park. My second thought was to worry about how we would ever get out of there without breaking or ruining something. There were expensive art and ceramics everywhere, and the entire apartment was white. I looked dubiously at my crew, who were rushing to quickly get set up before we wore out our welcome, hoping that they had wiped their feet very well when we emerged from the park.

The only people whom I saw in the apartment were Yoko, Sean Ono Lennon, and a bodyguard, wearing a gun in a shoulder holster. I remember thinking how unspeakably sad (to say nothing of incredibly ironic) it was that Yoko Ono and this beautiful boy lived with a loaded gun as a constant presence.

Yoko suggested that we interview Sean, who was then ten years old. We sat in the kitchen, where there were floor-to-ceiling bookshelves full of cookbooks, art books and record albums (this was also pre-CD days). Martha asked Sean questions about his memories of his father, what kind of music he liked, what he was studying in school, whether he played music himself….and about what it was like to be friends with Michael Jackson. I remember that Sean replied, giggling, that it was really fun, and that Michael called him “Rubber.” Then she asked what they were doing to celebrate his father’s birthday, and he described pulling out the albums and listening to music – both his father’s music and the music that his father loved. It helped him try to remember his father. I glanced over at Yoko Ono, who was watching silently, her face impassive.

When the interview was over, Yoko took me aside and said that one question was a problem, and would need to be erased. “You understand,” she said, “that he is only 10 years old, and he doesn’t know exactly what he should share and what he shouldn’t.” I thought to myself, “Oh, NO. There goes that incredibly intimate story about listening to the music and remembering his father.” But I was wrong. She told me that if he were older he would understand that if you are going to be friends with Michael Jackson, you can’t talk about Michael Jackson.

And with that, the man with the gun escorted me into a room that had been converted into a professional video studio. We pulled our master tape out of the recorder, put it on the deck, cued it up to the answer about Michael Jackson, and erased it. He played it back, checked to be sure the video was deleted, and handed it back to me without a word.

Today, like everyone else, I find it hard to believe that John Lennon would have been seventy years old. We are all 30 years older than we were back when John Lennon died. Now I’m a parent myself, and understand much better what he was feeling when he sang the song “Beautiful Boy.” I’ll never forget the day that Yoko and Sean were generous enough to share a little bit of John’s world with us.

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